Mark 10: 17-52: A different kind of Kingdom

We’ve all seen Disney princess movies. We’ve all heard fairytales. Most of us have watched The Crown on Netflix. I haven’t watched The Princess Diaries, but I’m sure many of you will have. These all, invariably, involve kingdoms. All of these give us the same image of what a kingdom is meant to be like. It is run on opulence and grandeur: huge castles, giant banquets, gold, jewels, tiaras, big ball gowns, sashes, ceremonies. There are those in power; those who want power. There are the heroes, who get elevated to celebrity status, often with a whole fanfare and parade afterwards. Don’t forget the glitzy weddings, where anybody who is anybody attends.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex get married (image from wikipedia.org)

However, the Kingdom that Jesus presents in Mark 10 is radically different. The only problem is that the disciples and other people who desire to follow Jesus haven’t realised this yet. The rich man is still consumed by ideas of worldly wealth, security and trappings. James and John want status and recognition. Jesus says outright that the kingdom is not for those who desire wealth, status, image, authority or power. It is for the least, for the humble, for those that give these things up.

The passages of the rich man who cannot let go of his possessions and the squabbles of James and John are ins stark contrast to Jesus’ prediction of his death and the attitude of Bartimaeus. Jesus is going to be handed over to be mocked, tortured and killed. He will be spat on, accused and executed. It is not a life of glitz and glamor. It is messy, painful, dirty, tragic, horrific. But in that, Jesus says that he will rise again. In submitting yourself to the pain, hardships, humiliation, Jesus gives us the power to rise in the midst of it.

Bartimaeus, a blind man, also has the right attitude. Rather than asking Jesus to exalt him and to give him status, he just asks for mercy. “Son of David, have mercy on me!” he cries. In our humility, we should all recognise our weakness and our vulnerability and our need for Jesus’ mercy. And in asking for this, he will show grace and kindness. We need to realise our spiritual blindness and our need for spiritual sight.

So, if you think the kingdom of God is about power and popularity, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, it is a kingdom of refugees all seeking mercy from the divine saviour. This is the kingdom into which you are all invited.

Just a child: Mark 10: 13 – 16

One of the hardest aspects of coming to a new country, especially one which is so different to where you grew up, is how you are suddenly stripped of your competency. You suddenly need to relearn pretty much everything: how to talk, how to get around, even in some cases how to walk. (I had to learn to walk slower because of the heat, and not to flick my feet up, especially in the rain otherwise your trousers get really dirty). I had to learn how to ride a motorbike, how to cut up a mango, how to recognise fruit and vegetables, how to speak, my way around the city.

I had gone from being relatively competent in my life and being regarded as so by others, to then suddenly not being able to do anything. Khmer people recognised this; I was often guided or even prevented from doing somethings (like trying certain food, or helping out in a situation), lest my incompetency or weak stomach got the better of me. Suddenly, I had to learn to be vulnerable and unknowledgeable and weak again. There are still days and weeks, four years on, where Cambodia totally floors me. (In fact, that was pretty much the month of October.) I am once again reminded of my frailty and weakness.

This is what I think is the privilege of being a missionary. Being powerless and vulnerable in so many situations is perhaps the most important lesson we learn. It doesn’t feel like privilege at the time though. People don’t like feeling weak and powerless. In fact, we try anything to avoid it. We assert ourselves, become demanding, throw our weight around, become manipulative or passive aggressive. However, Jesus calls us constantly in to a posture of humility, weakness and vulnerability. Without that, we cannot recognise our huge need for him. Without realising our sinful, fallen, weak, even pathetic, nature, we have no need to run to the arms of a loving God.

Here in Mark 10:13-16, the disciples are once again reminded of this. (This has been a recurring theme in Mark.) They try to through their weight around again; this time they are using their power over children. They are preventing the children, who are, especially in this society but the same today, without status or influence, from getting to Jesus. The gospels are full of people obsessed with asserting authority and control (the disciples are no better than the Pharisees in this). However, Jesus clearly says that this is not the way of the kingdom.

The kingdom is for the weak, powerless and vulnerable. The kingdom is for the children, the blindman and destitute. The kingdom is for those who recognise their need of a good, powerful saviour. The more you try to assert your own power, the more you think your self as having authority, the more you care about status and influence, the less of the kingdom you will see. But humble yourself, and Jesus himself will welcome you in.

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In or out? Mark 9: 38 – 42

In verses 38-41, the disciples have rebuked someone simply because they were not one of them. This man had been driving out demons in Jesus’ name and the disciples didn’t like it. This man wasn’t in their gang or clique and therefore he had no right to associate himself with Jesus. This was gatekeeping, first-century style. Funnily enough, Jesus wasn’t particularly happy with this. The disciples were trying to create certain criteria for entering Jesus’ group and Jesus reacted angrily.

In fact, he was so angry he told the disciples it would be better for them to die to try it again. Jesus tells them that they should tie a millstone around their neck and die at the bottom of the sea rather than insult another believer, especially one that is perhaps vulnerable in their faith.

So the question is this: how often are we guilty of gatekeeping in our churches? Do we set criteria that Jesus never intended to set for our churches? If their attendance is flaky, if they don’t dress up nice, if they don’t contribute to the potluck supper, if they are not a member of one of the Bible study groups, if they say the wrong things and can be a bit crass, do we still accept them as a believer? Or do we say things like, “Oh, they’re not real members; they’re not proper Christians”? Remember, in verse 41, Jesus sets the criteria. If someone believes in Jesus and just does the smallest thing in his name, they’re in. If someone however tries to rob them that, that person should be sleeping with the fishes.

Now, I’m doing a masters degree and at the moment my module is on anthropology and how its insights can help missionaries. (I think it’s a very useful subject to help Christians in general.) So, it’s got me thinking how some of these ideas can be used by the church. If you are reading this and wondering where this part is going, I will bring it around, I promise.

One concept that is often analysed when studying culture is views of kinship. There are different types of kinship to describe different things. One of my favourite types is fictive kinship. This is a kinship relationship which is entirely made up by those involved. We’ve all had those aunts that weren’t really aunts. Those are fictive kinships. You treat a person that is outside the biological or legal terms of family (i.e. in-laws) as if they are actually family. In Cambodia, this is pretty common. I’m in a fictive kinship relationship with Vitou and his family. From appearances, we are very obviously not related. However, the bond between us and the reciprocal obligations (go to birthday parties, bail each other out of problems, visit when the other one is sick or feeling down) are still there as if we were family members.

With kinship relationships, once that bond is created (through biology, law, or even other mechanisms) it is very hard to break. Even if you don’t see your uncle or your sister-in-law for years, they are still your family. The brother you only see at Christmas is still family. Your slightly inappropriate family member, perhaps the aunt that makes all the sexual-innuendos after a glass of wine, is still family. The cousin that you saw last sixteen years ago and they now live on the other side of the world, and you struggle to remember their wife’s name, is still family. When it comes to the criteria for being family, the bar is pretty low but it is still difficult to break the relationship.

The church, as the Bible tells us, is a family. Jesus is the head of the family and all other believers are your brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers in Christ. Therefore, the criteria for them being counted as one of us is pretty low. It is an association through Jesus. Regular church attendance, being a part of the flower committee, volunteering in the summer Bible clubs, or signing a pledge of church membership are not criteria for church membership. Giving a single glass of cool water in Jesus’ name, however is. So it doesn’t matter if you only see them at church at Christmas, they are still your brother or sister in Christ. It doesn’t matter if they say all the wrong things or don’t know the answers to the pastor’s questions, they are still your brother or sister in Christ. If they turn up in a t-shirt they bought at a rock concert, and jeans with holes in them, they are still your brother and sister in Christ.

We don’t actually get to choose who is in and out. We get to receive the love of Christ despite being sinners. Our only job is to accept brothers and sisters and encourage them to do the same. And if you don’t like it, well, don’t be too surprised if you find yourself thrown into the sea.

Mark 9: 30-37: childlike foolishness

This passage is only seven verses long. However, it holds a message that has really been shaping my faith recently, as well as holding a lot of other lessons on how (not) to behave. In it, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be handed over to men and he will die. How do they respond? They bicker about who is the best out of them.

Now, imagine this. You have just been given a terminal diagnosis. You know soon you are going to die and it is probably a terrifying, daunting, sad prospect. So, of course, you tell your close family and friends. But rather than supporting you and consoling you, a fight breaks out. They start telling each other that they are better than the rest. Imagine how that would make you feel? This is pretty much what is happening to Jesus right now.

Jesus, knowing them pretty well, knows what the argument was about. He tells them that they need to stop worry about who is the greatest but who is the least. In fact, they need to be like children: utterly dependent on their father and having no status away from their family. I wrote about this in a blog post about 2 Peter 1. We often kid ourselves that God wants us to join in his work because we’ve got something important to contribute. Imagine the thought process in that. “Oh, I have been called to this work because God needs me.” I know I often fall for this trap. God does not need me whatsoever. He is wholly able to solve any problem or do any task infinitely better than I am. So, if I start thinking God needs me to do this, I am clearly missing the point.

However, God choose me. He chooses me despite my lack of qualifications, my inability, my sin. It’s like a really bizarre job interview process. My CV is scant and lacking. My references are appalling (God knows all my sin and failings) Yet he gives me the job because I am his son. It is the biggest case of nepotism I can think of.

So, I need to learn to live each day reminding myself, “I am just a foolish, dependent, needy child who is in the care of his heavenly Father.” I need to put aside all thoughts that God chose me because of my abilities and I need to really humble and submit myself into the hands of the Lord.

This may seem like I’m unnecessarily destroying my self-esteem for no reason. But have you ever seen a child play? When they make tea for their dolls or race their cars, they don’t care whether they are good enough to do that. They don’t worry, “Am I adequate enough to stack blocks?” It’s not stifling; it’s freeing! You are not good enough to do God’s work but you still get to do it anyway! It’s through God’s power and help that you accomplish great things. It’s such a privilege that God would use a loser like me.

Mark 9:1-29 – Transfigured and transformed

I don’t know about you, but the transfiguration passage in Mark (and it’s equivalent elsewhere) is probably the part of the gospels I find the hardest to wrap my head around. It seems relatively unbelievable. It’s one of the passages that I read with a hardened heart (much like the disciples hardened their heart after Jesus calms the storm previously). It all seems a bit too nebulous and, dare I say it, weird. I don’t know how to respond to this passage.

Peter and the other disciples, too, don’t know what to do. They are fearful by what they see. I suppose I am also fearful of this scene. It challenges my predefined ideas of what is acceptable and also pushes against my logical and empirical sensibilities. (Thanks, Enlightenment scholars for that heritage.) So, I often try to overlook this passage. (“Whoops, that’s obviously there by accident. Let’s move on.”)

As Peter babbles on — even in front of a transfigured Jesus and two dead prophets, he finds it hard to shut his mouth — God interrupts him. God says to the disciples, “This is my Son, whom I love! Listen to him!”

Listen to him. Now that’s something I often fail to do. I get caught up in busybody work. Maybe that’s my version on babbling on. Am I scared to really listen, to look upon Jesus and see him for what he is? Will I cry, “Away from me, for I am a sinner?” Will I find having everything I believe confronted to uncomfortable? So, I frantically fill the silence with “helpful work” and, I tell myself, “God’s work”. But really, God tells us what he wants us to do in the light of a resurrected Jesus. God wants us to listen to the Son he loves.

After Jesus returns from the transfiguration, the disciples that were left behind were in a bit of a bind. They were in a crowd and there was a quarrel. The argument centres around a demon possessed boy.

Jesus is able to heal the boy where the disciples could not. Although this transformation of circumstances is miraculous, I find the transformation in the heart of a desperate father more so. The father, just before Jesus heals his son, says, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

How many times have I cried that? I do believe. I want to believe. I want to believe the transfiguration. I want to believe that Jesus indwells in me. I want to believe I can be transformed and transfigured. Help me overcome my unbelief!

Jesus’s belief doesn’t come from nowhere though. Jesus’s power comes from prayer. Not some incantation, but daily, faithful prayer and communion with the Father. That is what overcomes unbelief.

Lord God

Transform me. Change my heart. I want to believe but my faith is as small as a mustard seed. Help me overcome my unbelief. Let me come with childlike wonder at your Word. Help me to listen to your Son, whom you love.

In Jesus’s holy name, Amen.

Mark 8:22-38 – Are you for Jesus or Satan?

In this passage, we continue to see how we can still be ignorant of Jesus’ plans in our lives. We see the motif of blindness and it seems to echo what is happening in Peter.

Jesus heals a blind man, but the revelation of sight is a gradual process. The man can see the figures before him, but can’t truly recognise them for what they really are. Later, we see Peter confess that Jesus is the messiah. He can see the figure before him. He knows who Jesus is. But he cannot really recognise who the Messiah is. Peter’s understanding of who is before him is very limited.

Peter has grown up with this preconceived idea of what a Messiah would do. You couldn’t really blame him; it is based on Scripture. However, as we saw in yesterday’s passage, the disciples (and much of society around them) have an extremely worldly perspective. Their concerns before were bread and hunger. The concerns that shaped the interpretation of Scripture that Peter obviously believes are very human too. They deal with human kingdoms and politics and power. Jesus cam to deal with the cosmic and spiritual realms. Compared to what Jesus was here to do, Peter’s vision is tiny.

Yet, Peter is completely set on this idea. He is so set in fact, that when Jesus suggests that the plan is different, Peter tells Jesus off. Imagine that conversation: in one breath Peter says that Jesus was sent by God and in the next tells Jesus he can’t do what he wants to do. If Peter was right in the first instance, he is definitely overstepping the mark. As a result, Jesus actually says Peter is Satan.

Here, Peter is being used by Satan to get in Jesus’ way. Peter’s perspective actually doesn’t forward God’s plan, but instead promotes Satan’s agenda. The question is, when do we behave like Peter? When do we get in Jesus’s way and when do we act, by accident, on behalf of Satan? Peter loved and followed Jesus, even believed he was the Messiah. And yet, he could still get it so wrong that Jesus would tell him he was doing Satan’s work. We can love and follow Jesus and still do Satan’s work.

The next passage tells us how to avoid this pit fall. We need to be completely submissive to Jesus’s plan in our lives. We need to crucify ourselves and deny ourselves. Now often we turn that into something frankly pathetic. We turn this submission into giving a small sum to charity while we still live in the highest comfort compared to most the world’s population. We turn it into petty sacrifices, like opening our home to a Bible group once a week. We think we deny ourselves when we stand in the rain for street ministry. But the we go back to our flat screen TVs, plush couches, play on our state-of-the-art phones, and live our lives in abundance and comfort. We pursue our dreams and our desires. We plan our lives out according to our or our society’s values.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am no better. Often people will paint my life as one of difficulty and hardship. It is not. It is quite different to the one I was previously used to and the life of those back home. But it is no less comfortable and filled with the trapping of materialism. It is no less determined by my own desires and plans and dreams. I have simply replaced one set of distractions and dreams for another.

Norman Grubb, a famous missionary, would pray each morning, “Good morning, God. What are you up to today? I want to be part of it. May I? Thank you.” He would want to put his own desires and dreams for the day aside each day, and do his will.

“Good morning, God. What are you up to today? I want to be a part of it. May I? Thank you”

Norman Grubb

So let’s live each day by submitting our desires and will to our heavenly Father so that Jesus may work in us and through us. Let’s do Jesus’s work today. Amen.

Mark 8:1-21 – Sourdough and signs

This passage can be obscure in some places, and we perhaps feel a bit like the disciples when reading it. However, there is one thing that is clear in the passage: it is easy to fail to recognise Jesus for who he actually is.

Throughout Mark, Jesus has performed miracles: healed the sick, opened the eyes of the blind, calmed storms. Here is no exception: he feeds a crowd of at least 4,000. This crowd has been with Jesus for three days. (I often feel like a 90 minute church service drags. Shows how pathetic my thirst for the word is.) Naturally, they are hungry to the point of potentially fainting on the journey back. Now, Jesus hadn’t forced them. They were aware of the risks. When have I ever thought, I feel dizzy and starving, but one more church service? These people obviously did.

So, Jesus feeds them and again multiples bread to a miraculous amount. Another miracle. Then almost immediately, the Pharisees ask for a sign. You can’t help but wonder at their thinking. (One commentary suggests they asked for a particular, apocalyptic sign. But still, Jesus is obviously powerful and has authority, yet they still want to test him.) Jesus does not give them what they are looking for.

Then the disciples get in a boat and they’ve forgotten to bring bread. The disciples squabble and are fixated on this. Jesus tells them something, which although related, is not about the bread. Jesus warns them not to let the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod taint them. This is where a bit of historical context is very helpful.

When we think of making bread and yeast, we often think of the instant yeast packets you get from the baking aisle in supermarkets. That’s not how you made bread in ancient times. It was more like a sourdough. You would keep back a part of the dough, and use it the next day. This process happened pretty much everyday. Take your portion of old day, work it into the new dough, then keep a portion back, and repeat. Therefore, if your dough went bad, it would contaminate all your subsequent doughs. Therefore, Jesus is saying the Pharisees and Herod are a bad batch that have a pernicious potential to contaminate many others, and for a while.

When the disciples hear this, they are still thinking about the lack of bread. In verse 4, they were concerned about the lack of bread too. Previously, they were concerned about the lack of money or food or other resources. The disciples are very concerned about the lack of provision. They have Jesus with them and they still worry about whether they will have enough. Jesus has proven his ability to provide again and again and they still fail to trust that their needs will be met.

They are such bad disciples, aren’t they? We would never doubt or focus on world worries, would we? We are far above that. It’s easy to judge the disciples, especially as they literally have Jesus in front of them. But doesn’t Jesus promise that he will be with us, just like he was with the disciples? Doesn’t he promise to fulfil our needs? Doesn’t scripture reassure us again and again that God cares and provides?

What bad yeast have we been kneading into our lives again and again? What evil, what doubts, what blind spots do we keep back then work into our thinking everyday? What is the source of our bad yeast? We probably can’t blame the Pharisees for this one. Is it consumer culture? Individualist cultures that push self-fulfilment and independence to an unhealthy degree? Old fears? What is your unhealthy yeast?

Mark 7: 31-37: Meeting and healing

Given it was such a short passage at the end of Mark 7, I wondered whether it would have enough to write a blog post about. That was a ridiculous thought, because you could probably write a whole dissertation on a single verse (I’m pretty sure it’s already been done).

In this passage, Jesus is passing through another Gentile area, where a deaf and mute man is brought to Jesus. Jesus takes him away from the crowd. Then he sticks his fingers in the man’s ears, then Jesus touches his own tongue and then touches the man’s. This seems really weird to us. However, one reason that I’ve read about was that the man was deaf, so Jesus had to explain what was about to happen somehow. Jesus was symbolically telling the man that he was about to be healed. Jesus was meeting with the man where he was, responding to his individual condition.

Now, here the verses perhaps have an additional layer for the modern reader. We read about these episodes in term of spiritual deafness and spiritual muteness. Surely, it is my prayer that the ears and tongues of those around me are opened so that they may receive and speak of the glory of Jesus? “Ephphatha!” (“Be opened!”) I also pray it for myself. I am aware that I live a lot of my life in a state of spiritual deafness and muteness.

Also, this passage shows how Jesus wishes to make his healing ministry very much unlike the ministries of tele-evangelists and faith healers. Jesus tried to do it away from prying eyes and the crowds. He also looks to heaven for his power, not to himself. Finally, he asks those who did see it not to talk about it (the efforts of which, were very much in vain). Jesus healed the man for the man’s sake, not for his own fame or glory. Jesus did not want the fame of a faith healer. He wanted to show compassion and he wanted his Father’s glory to be known.

Mark 7:24-30 – the anti-Karen

This passage is quite difficult to read, sometimes. A woman comes to Jesus, asking for help for her possessed daughter, and Jesus, who we know is kind and compassionate, calls her a dog. It’s really jarring and hard for us to understand.

There are a few reasons why this happened. First of all is the relationship between oppressed Israel and the wealthy Syrophoenician region of Tyre. Essentially, they hated each other. Furthermore, the region of Galilee often lost a lot of its resources and wealth to the Syrophoenicians. So, usually, it was the Jewish bread being fed to the Syrophoenicians. (Thanks Biblegateway.com for the resources to know this by the way!)

Second, was that Jesus was a Jewish religious leader, serving the Jews. She was a gentle who didn’t even believe in God. It’d be a bit like me going to a busy Imam, asking he stopped everything he was doing for his Muslim community to help me. Aren’t those in his community his priority? Would it be wrong of me to assume I should have preferential treatment?

Jesus is basically pointing out that she isn’t really in the position to be asking for his help. Who is she that she should think Jesus would help her? She is the least of his worries. First, he has work to do for his fellow Jews.

It’s a bit of a slap in the face. So, the woman does what any of us would do, argue, storm off and make a fuss, demanding that she deserves to be helped and that it’s within her rights to be listened to. Actually, she does the opposite. She agrees with Jesus. She a agrees, through her clever and witty response, that she is a dog, but even sometimes, the dogs get something, even if it is just a tiny bit. This takes great humility on her part. She accepts her status; she acknowledges Jesus’s priority. She also testifies to Jesus’s power. Even a crumb would do; just something tiny from someone so powerful would be enough. And, because she is willing to approach with humility, she is blessed.

The NIV Application Commentary you get with a Biblegateway.com subscription (I’m not advertising or sponsored, but if I were… looks at Biblegateway.com) has been really helpful. It asks what would Jesus have said to us to challenge our pride. I think, Jesus would have probably said I was stupid or foolish (often like he says to the disciples). And I would have left. I would not have stayed around and accepted the insult. My pride would have prevented me from accepting Jesus’s blessing.

I think that we often see in Western society an inflated sense of our entitlement and status. The internet meme sensation of the term ‘Karen’ perhaps exhibits this. (I think this term should be used carefully, because it could be used to police well-meaning people’s behaviour and is somewhat misogynistic.) However, the woman in this story is perhaps the opposite. She accepts that she has no entitlement, priority or influence. Yet, she is still persistent in asking for her help and realises that the blessings are actually for those in her position. So, in her humility, she is given what she came for.

Mark 7:1-23 – Rules and Regulations

In this passage, Jesus clashes with the Pharisees. That’s not a surprise. However, the subject of the clash probably is: hand washing. The disciples had not washed their hands before eating. Now, to us (especially in COVID days), that perhaps sounds a bit gross. We perhaps imagine that the reason that there was an issue was because the disciple’s hands were obviously dirty, especially as the word “defiled” is used. This is probably not the case. Let’s be honest, how many of us give our hands anything more than a cursory rinse before eating if they look clean?

The disciples hands, if they hadn’t washed them, were probably mostly clean. So, the Pharisees were not questioning the disciple’s hygiene. The Pharisees were questioning the disciples adherence to ritual practices. Before Jews ate, they performed a ceremonial washing of the hands. The worry was that the disciples had come into contact with something that was ritually impure (for example, they could have come into contact with someone that had contact with blood, like a butcher). So, their hands may have been ritually defiled, not literally defiled. This is what they were meant to wash off, the “impurity” of day-to-day life.

Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. It is not what they have come into contact with that makes them unclean. It is what is in their heart and the outpouring from that which makes them unclean. It is not the purity rituals but their morality that decides what type of person they are. This is why only God can truly judge us; only he can weigh the contents of a person’s heart.

Of course, the church has been so much better at this in recent times, hasn’t it? (We’ve only got to think of the appalling treatment of those on the outside of society by some of the church to realise this is not the case. A particularly harrowing example is the treatment of those born out of wedlock in Ireland, for example.) And although we perhaps don’t have such strong concepts of ritual purity, we’ve perhaps replaced this with social niceties today. These, too, are about the outward but superficial signs of goodness. You can still be malicious but say your please and thank yous.

Here’s a short and interesting video about how the UK church is too middle class. A lot of what we do, without realising, alienates those who don’t know our rules and regulations, our rituals and ways of doing things.

I wonder how then, we go about caring about what Jesus cared about. How do we see people as he saw them and focus on issues of the heart rather than outward and superficial signs of goodness. Truly, I don’t think we can. At least, not without the help of the Holy Spirit in us.